Author: Mr. Kenneth Frank | Faculty in Theology, Living Education
Estimated reading time: 8 min., 40 sec.
Did you know that the Bible refers to God’s spoken and recorded revelations by the term oracles?
When writing to the Church of God in Rome, the Apostle Paul used this term that was familiar to Jews but that is rather unfamiliar to Christians today. Some may think this word refers only to pagan oracles. Some may wonder what God’s oracles are and why they were given this name. This Digging Deeper delves into these questions with a brief word study that will further open our understanding of God’s inspired and preserved word. It will also explain the demanding responsibility of God’s people to faithfully preserve and promote it.
Our focus verses for this word study are: Romans 3:1-2 KJV “What advantage then hath the Jew? or what profit is there of circumcision? (2) Much every way: chiefly, because that unto them were committed the oracles of God.” This was Paul’s reply to his question concerning the advantage afforded by God to the Jews. Paul reminded them they had been privileged to receive the word of God that at first was spoken directly by God but later inscribed for permanence.
Sayings and Revelations
In the plural, the oracles of God appears three times and the phrase the lively oracles appears once in our New Testament: Acts 7:38; Romans 3:2; Hebrews 5:12; 1 Peter 4:11. They were described as living since the living God had spoken them at Sinai. The word oracles is translated from the Greek word logion (plural of logos), literally meaning “sayings”. In simple terms, this was the common first-century synonym for the Hebrew Bible, which Christians call the Old Testament.
Richard Watson’s Biblical and Theological Dictionary explains that oracle “… denotes something delivered by supernatural wisdom; and the term is also used in the Old Testament to signify the most holy place from whence the Lord revealed his will to ancient Israel, 1 Kings 6:5, 19-21, 23. But when the word occurs in the plural number, as it mostly does, it denotes the revelations contained in the sacred writings of which the nation of Israel were the depositories” (e-Sword 13.0).
God’s oracles were not always in written form. The CARM Theological Dictionary reports: “God’s method of communicating these oracles varied from dreams and visions (Numbers 12:6-8), to wisdom (Proverbs 30:1), and even the Urim and Thummim (Numbers 27:21; 1 Samuel 14:337 [SIC])” (e-Sword 13.0). Another source of divine guidance was the high priest’s breastplate. Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words declares, “Divine ‘oracles’ were given by means of the breastplate of the high priest, in connection with the service of the tabernacle, and the Sept. uses the associated word logeion in Exodus 28:15, to describe the breastplate” (Ibid.).
Oracles of God
These oracles were the divinely inspired utterances of God. In defining what was included in these oracles, Richard Watson’s Biblical and Theological Dictionary declares: “These oracles contained the law, both moral and ceremonial, with all the types and promises relating to the Messiah which are to be found in the writings of Moses. They also contained all the intimations of the divine mind which he was pleased to communicate by means of the succeeding prophets who prophesied beforehand of the coming and of the sufferings of the Messiah with the glory that should follow” (e-Sword 13.0).
The Biblical Illustrator, by Joseph S. Exell, carries this thought even further: “But the apostles, when they term the Scriptures ‘oracles’ (Acts 7:38; Hebrews 5:12; 1 Peter 4:11), signify that they are real revelations from the true God. These were communicated—viva voce, as when God spake to Moses face to face—in visions, as when a prophet in an ecstacy had supernatural revelations (Genesis 15:1; 46:2; Ezekiel 11:24; Daniel 8:2)—in dreams, as those of Jacob (Genesis 28:12) and Joseph (Genesis 37:5-6)—by Urim and Thummim, which was a way of knowing the will of God by the ephod or breastplate of the high priest. After the building of the temple, God’s will was generally made known by prophets Divinely inspired, and who were made acquainted with it in different ways (1 Chronicles 9:20-21)” (e-Sword 13.0).
Not all oracles are of God. The Devil has his oracles as well. Albert Barnes’ Notes on the Bible declares: “The word ‘oracle’ among the pagan meant properly the answer or response of a god, or of some priest supposed to be inspired, to an inquiry of importance, usually expressed in a brief sententious way, and often with great ambiguity. The place from which such a response was usually obtained was also called an oracle, as the oracle at Delphi, etc. These oracles were frequent among the pagan, and affairs of great importance were usually submitted to them” (e-Sword 13.0).
The ultimate source of these revelations is spiritually dangerous as Richard Watson’s Biblical and Theological Dictionary declares: “Among the Heathen the term oracle is usually taken to signify an answer, generally couched in very dark and ambiguous terms, supposed to be given by demons of old, either by the mouths of their idols, or by those of their priests, to the people, who consulted them on things to come. Oracle is also used for the demon who gave the answer, and the place where it was given” (eSword 13.0).
One may wonder how reliable pagan oracles were. The Biblical Illustrator by Joseph S. Exell notes: “These were, indeed, merely pretended communications from gods that had no existence; or, perhaps, in some instances real communications from demons, and the answers which were given were generally expressed in such unintelligible, or equivocal phrases as might easily be wrested to prove the truth of the oracles whatever the truth might be (Acts 16:16)” (e-Sword 13.0). Ambiguity of meaning was the order of the day.
A New and Concise Bible Dictionary by George Morrish goes a step further: “In the learned heathen world, Satan had places in imitation of this, at which it was professed that an answer from their gods could be obtained; but the answers were often purposely vague in order that afterwards they could be interpreted differently according as the event turned out. Thus the persons were duped who asked the questions” (Bible Analyzer 18.104.22.168). By contrast, God’s word may always be considered factual and verifiable.
Preserving the words of God
The Jewish people were given the special privilege, but demanding responsibility, for preserving, supervising, and promoting God’s holy word, which Stephen called “lively (living)” (Acts 7:38). Jewish scribes and scholars were especially diligent in preserving and copying these divine utterances. Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible explains their significance: “The Jews were the Christians’ library-keepers, were entrusted with that sacred treasure for their own use and benefit in the first place, and then for the advantage of the world; and, in preserving the letter of the scripture, they were very faithful to their trust, did not lose one iota or tittle, in which we are to acknowledge God’s gracious care and providence” (e-Sword 13.0). This is how God preserved His word for succeeding generations. Christians need to be especially grateful to the Jewish people for safeguarding the largest section of their Holy Bible.
The Hebrew Scriptures became part of the Christian Bible since the New Testament is the fulfillment of the Old Testament. The Church of God is now the custodian of God’s oracles in both testaments. Christians need to read and study them to grow and mature. In his epistle to Hebrew Christians, Paul scolds them because they needed to be taught again the basic principles of God’s word instead of becoming teachers of others (Hebrews 5:12). Some believers today need to take these words to heart because of their neglect of serious scriptural study.
Peter cautions preachers by reminding them they must preach God’s oracles with the ability God gives, not their fanciful ideas (1 Peter 4:11). Too many preachers today do not preach the meat of the word of God to their congregants as they are commanded. Rather, concepts from the world of psychology, psychiatry, and sociology are often substituted for preaching and teaching God’s word. Preaching and teaching are two different, though related, techniques for conveying God’s mind to His people.
Study the living oracles
Paul commands God’s people to: “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15 KJV). How precious God’s word is for every believer. When we study the Bible we need to remember we are reading the very words our Creator and Redeemer has commanded each of us personally. Bible reading and study should be done with a sense of reverence (Psalm 119:161). When we read it we are in God’s presence and are having a “conversation” with Him when we join Bible study with prayer.
To bring our brief study to a close, The Preacher’s Complete Homiletical Commentary, edited by Joseph S. Exell, quotes R. Watson who offers these keys for proper Bible reading and study: “These oracles are committed or entrusted to you.—1. They are entrusted to be read or understood; 2. To interpret honestly; 3. To make them known to others; 4. To apply to practical purposes”(e-Sword 13.0). Today God’s people are the library-keepers for the word of God. God’s oracles are not only to be read and studied but lived since they are the “lively (living) oracles” given to us to share with the world (Acts 7:38).
Kenneth Frank was born and raised in New Jersey, USA and attended Ambassador College, graduating in 1973. He served in the Canadian ministry from 1973-1999, after which he returned to the USA to pastor churches in Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina for 15 years. Having earned a BA degree from Ambassador College he later earned a MA degree from Grand Canyon University before being assigned to the Charlotte office to teach at Living University, now Living Education. Currently, he teaches the Survey of the Bible course to the on-campus students and writes the Digging Deeper column for our online Bible study program. He is married, has four children, and seven grandchildren.